Dead Presidents

Historical facts, thoughts, ramblings and collections on the Presidency and about the Presidents of the United States.

By Anthony Bergen
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Posts tagged "Thomas Jefferson"
No man will ever carry out of the Presidency the reputation which carried him into it.
Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Rutledge, December 27, 1796
Perhaps the most incapable Executive that ever filled the Presidential chair…It would be difficult to imagine a man less fit to guide the state with honor and safety through the stormy times that marked the opening of the present century.
Theodore Roosevelt, on Thomas Jefferson
It behooves every man who values liberty for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others.
Thomas Jefferson, letter to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1808
All the perplexities, confusion, and distress in America arise, not from defects in their Constitution or Confederation, not from want of honor or virtue, so much as from the downright ignorance of the nature of coin, credit, and circulation.
John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson, August 23, 1787

I will not suffer my retirement to be clouded by the slanders of a man whose history, from the moment at which history can stoop to notice him, is a tissue of machinations against the liberty of the country which has not only received and given him bread, but heaped its honors upon his head.

Thomas Jefferson, on Alexander Hamilton, in a letter to George Washington, September 9, 1792

Despite the fact that the Presidency of William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) lasted for only a month, the Harrison family left its mark on history before and after the 9th President’s 31-day stint in the White House in 1841. In fact, the Harrisons were one of the first American political dynasties.

John Scott Harrison (1804-1878), who served two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1850s, is the only person in American history to be the son of one President and the father of another. His son (and William Henry Harrison’s grandson), Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), was the nation’s 23rd President from 1889-1893.

However, the family’s most accomplished member was William Henry Harrison’s father and the man whom the 23rd President was named after — Benjamin Harrison V (1726-1791).

One of the nation’s Founding Fathers, the elder Benjamin Harrison never served as President himself, but he had direct or indirect links to several Presidents, not counting his son and great-grandson.

Benjamin Harrison V served in Virginia’s House of Burgesses for nearly 30 years (1748-1775) and became an early, vocal opponent of British policies towards the colonies. As Revolution approached, Harrison was a leading member of the Virginia delegation to the first and second Continental Congresses and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

During the second Continental Congress, Harrison shared a home in Philadelphia with a fellow Virginian — his roommate was George Washington. During the Revolutionary War, Harrison was often entrusted with drafting orders and dispatches to General Washington on behalf of Congress.

As war raged on, Harrison returned to the Virginia state legislature, newly christened as the House of Delegates, where he crossed paths with another future President — Thomas Jefferson. In 1778, Harrison defeated Jefferson in a race to become the speaker of Virginia’s House. Three years later, Harrison succeeded Jefferson as Governor of Virginia.

Following his term as Governor, Benjamin Harrison V sought to regain a seat in Virginia’s House of Delegates. While he eventually won re-election to the House and remained in Virginia’s legislature until his death in 1791, he initially came up short. Harrison lost a race in 1784 to John Tyler, Sr.

It wouldn’t be the last campaign featuring a Harrison and Tyler.

In 1840 — 56 years after Benjamin Harrison V and John Tyler, Sr. faced off for a seat in Virginia’s legislature — their sons, William Henry and John Jr., teamed up and were elected President and Vice President of the United States.

It doesn’t really matter whether he slept with her or not. He could have. After all, he owned her. She was subject to his exploitations in every conceivable way. It was he who brought her to Paris. It was he who sent her home from Paris. He had complete control of her destiny and he might have fathered the several children…Many people who deny that Jefferson fathered any mulatto children say that it was done by his nephews or by some other relatives. They seem to have scientific proof for that, without having any scientific proof for his not having slept with Sally Hemings or some other slaves. The important point to make is that throughout the land in the 18th and 19th centuries, blacks were the victims, the subjects, the exploited people of their owners and of those whites who didn’t own them. And that we lived in such immorality, such irregularity…that these things were part of the natural landscape in Virginia, and Mr. Jefferson was as likely as any others to have done this because it’s in character with the times — and, indeed, with him, who believed in exploiting these people that he controlled completely.

John Hope Franklin, on whether Thomas Jefferson fathered children with one of his slaves, Sally Hemings

Asker Anonymous Asks:
It is often claimed that the Louisiana Purchase was one of President Jefferson's greatest achievements. Do you think he was simply lucky that Napoleon was desperate for cash and the US had some very capable ambassadors in Europe to do his work. To put it simply wouldn't any president have accepted what was an amazing offer?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Oh, absolutely.  I can’t see any President turning down that offer at that time.  The interesting thing is how torn Jefferson was over the Louisiana Purchase because of the doubts he had about whether he did or did not have the Constitutional right to authorize such a purchase.

Because many Americans are uncomfortable with facing the hard truth that many of the leading lights of our nation’s independence — the architects of a country built on the idea of freedom and equality — were hypocrites who happened to own other human beings and treat them like livestock.  It feels better to think about Washington heroically leading his battered troops across the Delaware River and Thomas Jefferson writing the Declaration of Independence and James Madison crafting the Constitution than it does to think of those men taking inventory of the slaves they own, buying and selling others, or deciding which job they will have specific slaves do for hours and hours with no recompense, no mercy, and no hope of freedom.

Basically, we’re ashamed that these extraordinary human beings who conceived our nation, fought for it, and built it from scratch are tainted by the brutal and inhumane scars of slavery.  And we always will be.  It’s easier to celebrate their achievements than focus on their inhumanity.  

Asker tdperrin Asks:
I've been reading Tributes and Trash Talk (available on Amazon) and one of the more interesting things I've noticed so far is a few Presidents had an intense dislike for Jefferson. I imagine JQA's distaste is born somewhat out of his father's defeat by him, but Theodore Roosevelt also has little good to say about the man. Was there any sort of anti-Jeffersonian thought going around in the 19th century?
deadpresidents deadpresidents Said:

Awesome job working the plug in there for Tributes and Trash Talk!

I’ve always found the JQA/Jefferson relationship fascinating.  Obviously, the John Adams/Thomas Jefferson relationship is one of the most historic and interesting dynamics ever, especially since a lot of it is recorded through their letter to each other or about each other to others. 

With JQA, though, what is interesting is that there was a great respect between them and must have been some sort of affection because John Adams, in one of his last letters to Jefferson, half-jokingly referred to JQA, who was President at that point, as “our John” and said that “I call him our John, because, when you were at the Cul de sac at Paris, he appeared to me to be almost as much your boy as mine.”

Like you said, there must have been some animosity on JQA’s part because Jefferson defeated his father.  George W. Bush openly admitted to feeling the same way after Bill Clinton beat HIS father for the Presidency.  Yet, there were many things that JQA and Jefferson agreed on politically and Jefferson’s protege, James Monroe, was half-mentor, half-partner to John Quincy Adams when Monroe was President and JQA was Secretary of State.  Most interesting to me is that, in his personal diary shortly after Jefferson died, JQA eviscerated Jefferson while savagely critiquing Jefferson’s autobiography.  It’s a strange relationship - more of a rollercoaster ride, in my opinion, than the off-and-on relationship between JQA’s father and Jefferson.

TR was an especially brutal critic of Jefferson.  It’s kind of ironic that the incredibly wealthy Roosevelt saw Jefferson as something of an elitist.  I think Roosevelt’s biggest issue was he despised hypocrites and he saw Jefferson as one of the most glaring hypocrites of them all because of slavery.  There’s also the fact that Roosevelt looked down on men who didn’t fight when there was a battle to be joined.  As Governor of Virginia, Jefferson fled when it appeared the British were on their way to capture him, and Roosevelt saw that as cowardice — even though Jefferson probably couldn’t have lasted 60 seconds in a battle in which he would have been vastly outnumbered by the British and likely would have been summarily executed for treason if he had been captured.  Jefferson, as head of government in Virginia, made the right move by fleeing, but Roosevelt couldn’t forgive that or see it as anything but weakness.

3rd President of the United States (1801-1809)

Full Name: Thomas Jefferson
Born: April 13, 1743, Shadwell plantation, Goochland (present-day Albemarle County), Virginia
Term: March 4, 1801-March 4, 1809
Political Party: Democratic-Republican
Vice Presidents: Aaron Burr; George Clinton
Died: July 4, 1826, Monticello estate, near Charlottesville, Virginia
Buried: Monticello estate, near Charlottesville, Virginia

Another of the “Precedent Presidents”, the biggest achievements of Thomas Jefferson’s two terms in the White House were ambitious exhibitions of Executive power that seemed to go against the strictly republican, weak central power beliefs that Jefferson had lived his life on — the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis & Clark Expedition, the use of Executive Privilege, the abolition of the slave trade.  Surprising until you realize that Jefferson’s biography was a maze of contradictions.  While Jefferson will always be impossible to fully understand, it’s also impossible to overlook the fact that the 3rd President expanded the boundaries of the nation, expanded our understanding of the country we lived in, fought back against the Barbary pirates in a show of national strength, and even expanded the office of the President by his use of Executive Privilege in Aaron’s Burr’s treason trial.  The last two years of Jefferson’s term, with the Embargo Act and the Non-Intercourse Act left his successor, James Madison, with a wealth of inherited problems, but Jefferson’s achievements prior to that modernized the Presidency and American politics in a way that cannot be discounted.

1948: Schlesinger Sr./Life Magazine:  5 of 29
1962: Schlesinger Sr./New York Times Magazine:  5 of 31
1982: Neal/Chicago Tribune Magazine:  5 of 38
1990: Siena Institute:  3 of 40
1996: Schlesinger Jr./New York Times Magazine:  4 of 39
2000: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  7 of 41
2000: C-SPAN Public Opinion Poll:  5 of 41
2005: Wall Street Journal/Presidential Leadership:  4 of 40
2009: C-SPAN Survey of Historians:  7 of 42
2010: Siena Institute:  5 of 43
2011: University of London’s U.S. Presidency Centre:  4 of 40

First of all, I can’t believe there is a firestorm over this.  A lot of things are up for debate, including what Jefferson’s racial views were, but there is no way that anybody can ever convince me that Jefferson did his slaves a service by not releasing them and allowing them to live on their terms.  That’s the most paternalistic, racist, stupid argument that I’ve ever heard. 

A couple of final notes about this.

According to bobbysplayhouse:

The emancipation proc. was a military strategy, that is why he was able to pass an executive order. It did not free the slaves in the union, just the slaves in the south which one could argue was out of his jurisdiction so it really had no effect on the union itself. It was just an updated version of the slaves as contraband. Jefferson could not sign such a thing in VA and if he did im sure he would of been punted from VA in a heartbeat. So you seriously missed the boat on this one.

second, jefferson was not cruel to his slaves as you as making it seem. He would pay his slaves is they had an abnormally hard day and so forth. He took care of them gave them time off, clothes, feed them well… yada yada. Not saying slavery is a good thing either. As far as slaver-holders went Jefferson was the “nicest.” 

third, jefferson mulled this over on countless occasions. If he freed them they would most likely get hired back to do the same job and suffer from layoffs. He couldn’t afford to hire them back full time either. So he figured it was best to keep them.

*Cough* i think you may have overlooked a part of Jefferson’s correspondence with coles:

But in the mean time are you right in abandoning this property, and your country with it? I think not. My opinion has ever been that, until more can be done for them, we should endeavor, with those whom fortune has thrown on our hands, to feed and clothe them well, protect them from all ill usage, require such reasonable labor only as is performed voluntarily by freemen, & be led by no repugnancies to abdicate them, and our duties to them.

Im not slavery is completely 100% justifiable but the way you treat the subject does not do justice to Jefferson or the time period. Historical context is key for historians.

Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation was a military strategy, but it wasn’t the reason Lincoln was able to issue an Executive Order.  That’s one of the tools of the Presidency.  The President doesn’t have to be at war to issue an Executive Order.

Jefferson didn’t need an Executive Order or the permission of Virginia or anyone to free his own slaves at Monticello.  I understand that it appears that Jefferson didn’t beat his slaves.  But you can’t say that he wasn’t “cruel” to his slaves.  The very idea of slavery is cruelty and de-humanizes an entire people.  He sold slaves.  He bought slaves.  He put notices in the newspaper offering rewards for his runaway slaves.  You said that “as far as slave-holders went Jefferson was the ‘nicest’”.  THERE IS NO NICE WAY TO OWN SLAVES.  HOW CAN THAT NOT BE UNDERSTOOD?  IT IS SLAVERY.

Now, as for the correspondence from Jefferson-to-Coles that I “overlooked”?  Do you not realize that Jefferson calls human beings “property” in that paragraph.  THAT IS THE ISSUE.  Human beings can not and should not be property.  Jefferson’s entire belief system was built on the idea that life is for the living, and people should be allowed to determine their own path in life.  That’s not something that I am interpreting or making up.  That is a fact.  It is why Jefferson supported the American Revolution (and the French Revolution).  Yet, you’re giving Jefferson credit for being a paternalistic man who owned human beings because, as he points out in that paragraph, they’re not quite ready to live their own lives.  You know why they weren’t ready?  Because they were property to Jefferson.  I hate that I have to go here, but to Jefferson, the slaves were basically livestock that he could talk to and fuck.

The last thing I want to say is that neutralangel made a post and I love his stuff, appreciate his support, and agree with him on everything he posted except for one thing:

I’m reblogging this again because I’m not sure my post earlier was formatted properly and made it seem as though I was like, “YEAH ALL THESE PEOPLE LOVE THE SLAVERIES.”  In fact, only two of them do. They are justifying Jefferson’s ownership of slaves by saying, basically, that he thought it was a pretty bad idea otherwise.

I am absolutely certain that bobbysplayhouse and revocate-animos are not supporters of slavery.  They know it was evil.  They love Jefferson and they don’t quite understand Jefferson’s views, which is okay, because there’s a lot to love about Jefferson and a lot that we don’t understand.  I’ve probably read every word Jefferson ever wrote, and he’s still a paradox to me and always will be to all of us historians.

Debate is good, discussion is healthy.  If someone doesn’t understand something, I hope that I can help, just as I hope I can realize when I am misguided about an issue.  There cannot be debate, however, on the degrees of slavery.  As I wrote the other day, very few things are certain in this world but there are no nice ways to kill somebody and no good ways to own slaves.

The Presidents Talk AboutThomas Jefferson

“He is an old friend with whom I have often had occasion to labor on many a knotty problem, and in whose abilities and steadiness I always found great cause to confide.” — John Adams, 1784

“It is with much reluctance that I am obliged to look upon him as a man whose mind is warped by prejudice and so blinded by ignorance as to be unfit for the office he holds.  However wise and scientific as a philosopher, as a politician he is a child and a dupe of party.” — John Adams, 1797; at the time, Jefferson was Adams’s Vice President

"Mr. Jefferson said I was sensitive, did he?  Well, I was sensitive…I always loved Jefferson, and still love him.” — John Adams, to Edward Coles in 1811, talking about the breach in the Adams-Jefferson friendship

"I congratulate You and Madison and Monroe on your noble Employment in founding a University.  From such a noble Tryumvirate, the World will expect something very great and very new.” — John Adams, congratulating Jefferson on the founding of the University of Virginia, in a letter, May 26, 1817

“Thomas Jefferson still survives!” — John Adams, his last words before dying, July 4, 1826; Adams didn’t know that Jefferson had died earlier that same day.

“For a period of fifty years, there has not been an interruption or a diminution of mutual confidence and cordial friendship (between myself and Mr. Jefferson) for a single moment in a single instance…It may be said of him as has been said of others that he was a ‘walking library’, and what can be said of but few such prodigies, that a Genius of Philosophy ever walked hand in hand with him…He lives and will live in the memory and gratitude of the wise and good, as a luminary of Science, as a votary of liberty, as a model of patriotism, and as a benefactor of human kind.” — James Madison, 1826

“A slur upon the moral government of the world.” — John Quincy Adams

“He was a mixture of profound and sagacious observation, with strong prejudices and irritated passions…If not an absolute athiest, he had no belief in a future existence.  All his ideas of obligation were bounded by the present life.  His duties to his neighbor were under no stronger guarantee than the laws of the land and the opinions of the world.  The tendency of this condition upon a mind of great compass is to produce insincerity and duplicity, which were his besetting sins through life.” — John Quincy Adams

"Mr. Jefferson can torture Aaron Burr while England tortures our sailors." — Andrew Jackson, denouncing Jefferson’s pursuit of treason charges against Aaron Burr, Richmond, Virginia, 1807

“The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of a free society.” — Abraham Lincoln

“Perhaps the most incapable Executive that ever filled the Presidential chair…It would be difficult to imagine a man less fit to guide the state with honor and safety through the stormy times that marked the opening of the present century.” — Theodore Roosevelt

“I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” — John F. Kennedy, April 29, 1962, White House dinner for Nobel Laureates.

“An idealist with sense.” — Richard Nixon

“Thomas Jefferson made a comment about the Presidency and age.  He said that one should not worry about one’s exact chronological age in reference to his ability to perform one’s task.  And ever since he told me that, I’ve stopped worrying.  And just to show you how youthful I am, I intend to campaign in all 13 states.” — Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Annual Salute to Congress Dinner, February 4, 1981

“I want to be faithful to Jefferson’s idea that about once in a generation you have to shake things up and face your problems.  We owe it to Thomas Jefferson and George Washington and all our forbears to face the difficult problems of our time and try to solve them.” — Bill Clinton, on a bus tour to Monticello, Virginia prior to his inauguration as President, January 18, 1993

“If Thomas Jefferson were alive today, I would appoint him Secretary of State, and then suggest to Senator Gore that we both resign so he could become President.” — Bill Clinton, on a bus tour to Monticello, Virginia prior to his inauguration as President, January 18, 1993